Déjà Flu

By Mark Roberti

For doctors and nurses responding to a pandemic, an RFID system could be a matter of life and death.

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In November 2002, the first case of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) was discovered in China. In February 2003, the Chinese government notified the World Health Organization (WHO) about the spread of the disease to more than 300 people. By April, SARS had spread to Singapore, the Philippines and Canada (see Singapore Fights SARS With RFID and Singapore Seeks Leading RFID Role).

In late 2003, Asia also saw an outbreak of bird flu, which spread throughout Asia and resulted in many farmers across the region killing their chickens. Now it’s swine flu (the H1N1 virus), which mutated from pigs but is not spread by them. Countries around the world are mobilizing to stem the outbreak.


The Fighting SARS Memorial in Hong Kong: Nearly 180 nurses and more than 50 doctors died in Hong Kong after treating SARS patients and contracting the illness themselves.

So far, swine flu has been fairly mild and has resulted in relatively few deaths, but health experts believe the world is vulnerable to potential deadly pandemics. One reason is that in some parts of the world, animals and humans live in close proximity to one another, allowing viruses common to animals to mutate and spread to humans. Another is that in today’s global economy, people travel across national boundaries with far greater frequency than ever before, allowing potentially lethal viruses to spread.

Some governments have responded to the potential threat of mad cow and hoof-and-mouth diseases by requiring farmers to track animals with RFID. The same technology could play a role if there were an outbreak of disease directly associated with animals, as was the case with bird flu. It would be possible to use RFID to track which animals the diseased animals had come in contact with and slaughter just those, thereby preventing the widespread destruction of farm animals that had not been exposed to the disease.

But governments could be more proactive by taking steps to deploy RFID systems that would enable hospitals to track individuals who have a disease, and those who come in contact with them. When the SARS outbreak was raging across Asia, hospitals in Taiwan and Singapore responded by deploying active RFID systems. Each patient confirmed to have the rapidly spreading disease was given an active RFID tag to wear. Doctors, nurses and others in the hospital also wore tags, as did visiting family and friends.

The system allowed doctors to monitor those who came in contact with infected patients. This was critical, because the incubation period of the SARS virus is 10 days. The system was set up to store data on individuals for 21 days (after which it was deleted), ensuring that information about all the contacts a SARS patient had within the hospital remained available well after the incubation period ended. With this information, health officials could determine whether new cases were the result of contact with existing SARS patients at hospitals.

By establishing these systems in advance, governments could contain a virus more effectively, and hospitals could respond more quickly to those who had been exposed to the virus. This issue is particularly vital for protecting the lives of health-care workers. Nearly 180 nurses and more than 50 doctors died in Hong Kong after treating SARS patients and contracting the illness themselves. Government funding would be key, but the system could also make hospitals more efficient if it were designed to track assets as well as people in the event of an outbreak. For doctors and nurses responding to a pandemic, such a system could be a matter of life and death.

Photograph copyright Chong Fat.